Updated Nov 10, 2022, 1:49pm EST
politicsNorth America

A small Republican majority could be the ‘nightmare scenario’ for a U.S. debt crisis

Joseph is a Domestic Politics and Policy Reporter for Semafor, joining us from Insider. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.


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The News

Reuters/Tom Brenner

Democrats are celebrating their strong performance in the House, where Republicans look likely to take, at best, a narrow majority.

But some Democrats are also starting to worry that a slim House Republican majority could make for a more unstable negotiating partner than a larger “red wave” version.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., told Semafor on Wednesday that he believes that the party’s right wing will gain immense influence if House Republican leaders like Kevin McCarthy have few votes to spare. He cast himself as playing a role similar to that of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a Democrat played an outsized role in his party’s agenda in the 50-50 Senate.

One House Democratic aide referred to the prospect of dealing with a narrow House GOP majority as “the nightmare scenario” for raising the debt ceiling, with Republican leaders constantly struggling to appease their most confrontational members. Already, McCarthy may have to make concessions to conservatives just to clinch his long-sought speakership.


“I think this dynamic probably makes it much more likely that there’s a push to do a big [omnibus spending bill] and take care of the debt ceiling in the lame-duck,” one Senate Democratic aide told Semafor. “If you’re Mitch McConnell, you probably want to get that stuff out of the way, too.”

Some Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are already pushing to defuse the threat before a Congress adjourns late next month, HuffPost reported. It’s unlikely Senate Republicans will muster 10 votes to help Democrats raise the borrowing cap, leaving the arduous and time-consuming reconciliation process as the only procedural vehicle left.

That would require unanimity among all 50 Senate Democrats and shave at least two weeks off a packed legislative calendar that could see votes on marriage equality and the Electoral Count Act among other measures.

Corporate America may raise the pressure on Democrats to get it out of the way sooner rather than later.

“I think business has awakened to the fact that the debt limit is coming,” Janice Mays, a former Democratic staff director on the House Ways and Means panel and now a managing director of tax policy at PwC, told Semafor. “Businesses are nervous about the debt limit and the push to the cliff.”

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Joseph’s view

House Republicans are already poised to take a more aggressive approach to check Biden in the final years of his term should they win a majority, similar to President Obama after the 2010 midterms.

But House Republicans netted 63 seats in 2010, and they’re gaining much less this time. Even with large majorities in the Obama era, Speaker John Boehner struggled to corral his right flank on key votes and was eventually ousted. Conservatives like Massie are already demonstrating they’re eager to wield their influence in the same way.

“You’re talking to the wrong guy if you’re trying to find somebody who’s heartbroken that we don’t have a 40 seat majority,” Massie said on Wednesday. “I want this outcome where it’s a slim majority.”

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Room for Disagreement

Other observers say that the debt ceiling will be lifted regardless, even if it takes some negotiations between Biden and a House Republican leader. It’s also possible a Republican Speaker might decide they have to reach a deal with Democrats even sooner if they conclude there’s no chance of keeping their caucus together.

“I don’t know that it materially changes the outcome,” Rohit Kumar, a former top aide to McConnell, told Semafor.